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The Importance of Customer-Centered Design

Over the years we have learned that the criteria for building customer-centered Web sites are based on providing a positive experience for all customers, whether those customers are there to find information, to be part of a community, to purchase items, or to be entertained. This focus is called customer-centered design. Customer-centered design increases the value of Web sites through better design and evaluation. It is about how you empathize with customers, understanding their needs, the tools and technologies they use, and their social and organizational context. It is about how you use this understanding to shape your designs, and then test those designs to ensure that the customers' needs are met.

Why go to all this trouble? What will happen if you don't? Suppose your site overruns its budget or schedule. Management could pull the plug before it is completed. Or what if your Web site is finished but turns out to be too hard to learn or use? Customers may visit your site once and never return.

With customer-centered design, you do the work up front to ensure that the Web site has the features that customers need, by determining and planning for the most important features and by making certain that those features are built in a way that customers will understand. This method actually takes less time and money to implement in the long run. In short, customer-centered design helps you build the right Web site and build the Web site right!

Here is an example underscoring the importance of customer-centered design. A few years ago, IBM found that its Web site was not working well. Quick analysis revealed that the search feature was the most used function. The site was so confusing that IBM's customers could not figure out how to find what they wanted. IBM also discovered that the help feature was the second most popular function. Because the search feature was ineffective, many people went to the help pages to find assistance. Paying close attention to customer needs, IBM redesigned the site from the ground up to be more consistent in its navigation. A week after launching the redesigned site, reliance on the search and help features dropped dramatically and online sales rose 400 percent.

This is just one of many stories highlighting the increasing importance of good design. But does good Web design really affect the bottom line? You bet! Web sites founded on solid fundamentals and extensive customer research can make the difference between success and failure. A clear, easy-to-use, and customer-centered Web site can help garner better reviews and ratings, reduce the number of mistakes made by customers, trim the time it takes to find things, and increase overall customer satisfaction. Furthermore, customers who really like a Web site's content and quality of service are more likely to tell their family, friends, and coworkers, thereby increasing the number of potential customers. A great example of this result is Google, which has become the dominant search site with little or no advertising. It simply works better than most other search sites, and customers tell their friends about it.

Providing Tangible Value

Yahoo! is one of the top Web sites out there today, and it's likely to remain near the top for the foreseeable future. Why? Is it because it has slick graphic design? Hardly. Yahoo!'s homepage only has around ten graphical images, and most of its other pages have less than a dozen. Yahoo! is always pointed out as the poster child of boring interfaces. Is it because Yahoo! uses the latest browser technologies? You would actually be hard-pressed to find Web pages on Yahoo! that use Macromedia Flash plug-ins or other bleeding-edge technologies. (In fact, the games section was the only part of Yahoo! we could find that used technology beyond HTML and basic JavaScript.)

So why is Yahoo! so popular? It's pretty simple actually: Yahoo! provides quality services that are useful, fast to download, and easy to use. One of the reasons it is such a popular Web site is that interaction design and usability research are integral parts of Yahoo!'s development process. Yahoo! discovers its customer needs through field studies, interviews, and usability evaluations, and then it tailors its designs to match customer needs.

There is also a strong correlation between increased satisfaction and increased profits for commercial Web sites. Underscoring this point, NetRaker's research shows that increasing customer satisfaction by just 5 percent can lead to a 25 percent or greater increase in revenues. This increase comes from customers who can find products and services more easily—customers who will return in the future—as well as the corresponding reduction in support costs. The decrease in support costs comes from a lower number of phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages to help desks, as well as a lower number of returns on products.

The stakes are higher now than ever before. Commercial Web sites that are not relevant, fast, trustworthy, satisfying, and easy to use will find it difficult to attract new customers and retain existing ones, especially if competitors are only a click away.

People will leave your Web site if they

  • Are frustrated

  • Think it is too much effort to navigate the site

  • Think you don't have the product or service they are looking for

  • Get big surprises that they don't like

  • Feel it takes too long to load

You cannot afford to abandon a single customer.

Even if your site does not have direct competitors, as is the case with educational institutions and corporate intranets, it can benefit from being customer centered. Simple, clean, and well-designed Web sites can cut down on wasted time for customers, reduce Web site maintenance costs for clients, and improve overall satisfaction.

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